Williamstown's Cole Kuster of Purple Valley Aquatics commits to swim for Harvard University
WILLIAMSTOWN — The booming and repetitive thuds of medicine balls being thrown into the floor of the Williams College pool's spectator deck can be startling for those unfamiliar with the day-to-day of Samuelson-Muir Pool.
Under the bleachers, where the echoing bangs are deafening, Cole Kuster doesn't break stride in describing his swimming upbringing and future plans.
Those plans now include continuing his academic and athletic career at Division I Harvard University, where he has committed to swim with the Crimson in the Ivy League.
Kuster is at the Williams pool all year round, sometimes swimming before and after his school day down the road at Mount Greylock, where he is a senior. For the most part, it's where he grew up.
The home of the Ephs doubles as his father's office.
Steve Kuster has spent close to two decades as head coach of Men's and Women's Swimming at Williams. His son has grown up in that pool, and it shows.
Among 17-year-olds, Cole is currently ranked with the ninth-fastest time in the 1,000 freestyle and 14th in the 500 freestyle in the country, per USA Swimming. He has qualified for two Junior National competitions, and placed 11th in the 1,650 freestyle. He was also the 2018 New England Senior champion in the 500 free, and second in the 1,000. At the 2018 Speedo Junior National Qualifier, he placed top 30 in the 800, 1,500 and 400 freestyles.
"He comes to the pool every day and works hard. He takes the school part very seriously, takes tough courses as a senior and that shows how dedicated he is," said Dan MacQuarrie, who coaches Kuster's club team now. "He's a pleasure to work with."
That's a long journey for a kid who started swimming competitively as a seven-year-old at the North Adams YMCA. As Kuster grew older, the swimming landscape in Berkshire County was changing and diminishing at the high school level. Mount Greylock wound up in a variety of different co-ops with other schools, which led to him looking elsewhere to compete.
"I thought about [swimming for Greylock] when I was first getting into middle school and high school, but it was just too inconvenient. The practices were in Pittsfield, and with the mandatory rules, I wouldn't be able to practice there and swim for a club team," Kuster said.
The better option turned out to be a newly-created club, the Purple Valley Aquatics. In 2012, Kuster was one of the first swimmers to join up, and he's been with the program helmed by Steve Kuster and Karrie Honecker, ever since.
Over that time, he's grown from a kid swimming for fun to a serious competitor, who now battles the best swimmers in America and is ready for Division I meets.
"When I was younger it was just seeing if I liked it and trying to get into it," said Kuster. "Then as I got older, I started realizing there were qualifications I had made and meets that I could go to that were more advanced.
"Now, I just competed at Junior Nationals in December, which was a big accomplishment for me. It was really awesome."
Kuster says around the time he got to high school he started zeroing in on this goal. He played lacrosse and soccer, and ran cross-country, but around his sophomore year, swimming became his true focus.
The timing also coincided with the idea of swimming at the collegiate level.
"It probably started around the end of 10th grade. I had a really good meet then, so over the summer I visited a few schools and reached out to a few coaches," said Kuster. "They weren't able to officially start talking to me until the start of my junior year, but all through junior year I was in contact with a bunch of coaches ranging from Division III to Division I schools."
What put him over the top was what he accomplished outside of the pool. While his times were certainly in line with top-tier programs, the 2017 and 2018 Scholastic All-American was just as sharp in the classroom.
"At the end of junior year, beginning of senior year, I had to start talking to coaches about where I was on their recruiting lists, and figuring out what schools I wanted to be at," said Kuster. "At the beginning of September, I had the opportunity to take some official visits to four schools. I got to go stay with the team for two days and experience everything. That ultimately helped me make my decision."
Those four schools were Notre Dame, Yale, Princeton and Harvard. After a visit to Cambridge in September, though, his choice became pretty clear.
"I had an immediate connection with the team. I really loved it, the coaches were awesome. I liked everything about the school," said Kuster of his Harvard trip.
To get to this point, he's had help from an array of coaches, teammates and friends. The support of PVA and Williams have been immeasurable, which made the initial conversation with Steve a bit difficult when Cole opted against the idea of potentially attending Williams.
"My dad asked me right in the beginning, 'just tell me now whether you're interested,'" Cole laughed, while his father was running the current Ephs through a series of weight stations. "I told him I wasn't, and that was fine.
"The coaches here, and my dad especially, being a college coach, he's so knowledgeable about it and they all helped me to set up a timeline and everything."
Steve himself has a Masters Degree from Harvard, and spent three seasons as an assistant coach there in the late 1990s.
Kuster mentioned specifically former Williams assistant coach Dave Dow, who recently became the head coach at The College of New Jersey, along with his current coach MacQuarrie.
MacQuarrie has only been with Williams and PVA since September, but he's quickly learned what makes Kuster the student-athlete he is.
"It's only been five or six months, but I met Steve and Cole probably 2016 back at Ithaca College, where I was working. He was 15 or 16 then and won the 1,000," said MacQuarrie. "That is usually a pretty fast meet, so I've known about him for a while now.
"Once I got here, I really started to see that he's a really dedicated athlete and just a really smart kid."
Kuster is thinking about pursuing classes in mechanical engineering at Harvard, but will go in undecided.
For the time-being, he's continuing to compete with Purple Valley, and will swim in March at nationals down in Florida and then again over the summer at Stanford. He's in touch with the coaches at Harvard, which is currently ranked No. 23 in the country, every couple of weeks with updates, and has a litany of goals still on his docket.
"One of my big goals at college is definitely to contribute to my team in helping win an Ivy League championship, and then individually just to make NCAAs," said Kuster. "Before that, a goal I've had set for a while is to make the national meet and Olympic trials, which are next spring."
Mike Walsh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, at @CLNS_Walsh on Twitter and 413-496-6240.
TALK TO US
If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.